July 1, 2014
I bet “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak would never sit down in front of a TV reporter and announce, “I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends.”
And I doubt that Minnesota Rep. Pat Garofalo would hold a news conference to say, “Let’s be honest, 70 percent of teams in the NBA could fold tomorrow, and nobody would notice a difference, with the exception of the increase in street crime.”
So what made Sajak and Garofalo feel comfortable saying those things on Twitter?
Soon after that little bird took flight on the Internet in 2006, celebrities, athletes and politicians began to recognize Twitter as an expedient way of bypassing those pesky reporters and communicating directly with the public. But Twitter’s value proposition turned out to be its liability: Tweeting is effortless, and successful communication usually demands effort.
Media interviews tend to inspire preparation, caution and strategy — none of which seems important when one is impulsively punching 140 characters into an iPhone from the comfort of one’s sofa.
News interviews are rarely spontaneous. Even a few minutes’ wait can serve as a cooling-off period during which reason has a chance to trump raw emotion. By contrast, Twitter is a digital mood ring capable of broadcasting our unfiltered thoughts and feelings in real-time.
When Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL, Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones tweeted “OMG” and “horrible” after watching Sam kiss his boyfriend on TV. Jones was summarily fined and suspended, even though, like so many others who have gotten into Twitter trouble, he ultimately deleted the offending tweet and apologized. Erasing a controversial tweet is like trying to buy every copy of a newspaper; once it’s out, it’s out.
Would Jones have made those reckless comments with a light, a camera and a microphone pointed at him? It’s possible. Some celebrities do tweet outrageous remarks that we could just as easily envision them saying to a reporter — Charlie Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Gilbert Gottfried come to mind.
But Twitter just makes it so easy.
Twitter’s false sense of security has even seduced members of our own profession. Who can forget the PR executive who tweeted from an airplane — a place where news interviews rarely happen, unless you are the president — “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
By the time Justine Sacco’s flight landed, her 64-character indiscretion had become the No. 1 trending tweet in the world, and her Twitter followers had reportedly ballooned from 400 to 8,000. (That’s one way to get followers, I suppose.) But it was irrelevant in the end, as Sacco’s Twitter account disappeared right along with her job.
What if Sacco had envisioned The New York Times when she typed that final tweet? What if Jones had treated his smart phone as a journalist instead of a diary? It’s too late for them, but not for the rest of us.
Off-color jokes, sarcastic remarks, impulsive thoughts and emotional outbursts aren’t any more appropriate on Twitter than they are on “60 Minutes.” And we don’t have to wait until Sunday night to see the mess that one can make on Twitter.
Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN national correspondent, and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an international media training and consulting firm.